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Posts Tagged stone brewery

Q&A: Mikkel Borg Bjergsø

Jan 10

Owner & Brewmaster, Mikkeller Brewing San Diego

Last year, 10-year Denmark-based gypsy brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø hammered down stakes in Miramar, transforming AleSmith Brewing Co.’s original brewery into Mikkeller Brewing San Diego. His brewing team spent most of 2016 getting the feel of the facility. Now that group feels ready to be more aggressive in its fermentation activities. Bjergsø has vowed his brick-and-mortar will debut one new small-batch beer on a weekly basis beginning January 12 at its tasting room with a trio of new offerings: bourbon barrel-aged Beer Geek Brunch imperial oatmeal coffee stout, Fruit Face raspberry-coffee Berliner weisse and Uklar IPA. Future “San Diego Beer Release Series” debuts will take place every Saturday starting January 21. Keeping up with such a rapid rate of innovation and execution is no easy task. Curious about this and what it’s been like for this world-famous brewer to find his feet in San Diego, we sat down with him to pick his brain.

WC: What are some surprises you’ve encountered in San Diego?
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø: It’s been surprising how different the beer scene is in the U.S. compared to Europe. There are so many great players—especially in San Diego—and so many great beers. You really have to make an effort to stand out. I think with the new special-release series we will.

WC: What drove the decision to release a new beer every week?
MBB: Brewing a lot of different beers and beer-styles is in our DNA, and it was only a matter of time before we set out to launch a similar release schedule in San Diego. At this point we have an amazing crew in place, the brewing equipment is all dialed in, and our management setup is so in tune with our vision that we are confident now is the time. Most people will associate us with a hectic output of beers in all styles, shapes and formats, which is exactly what they should expect. That, and the totally unexpected, of course. Having your own brewery opens up a world of possibilities that are not usually doable when working in someone else’s brewery, whether it’s contract brewing or on a collaboration basis.

WC: What is your day-to-day involvement like regarding brewing at Mikkeller SD?

MBB: We’ve had to adjust to both the physical distance and time difference, but I am fortunate in the sense that I have to rely on the very capable hands of our head brewer Bill Batten and his team of skilled assistant brewers. It’s still my recipes and vision, which we will discuss through our daily email chains and our weekly conference-call.

WC: What other interesting or exciting developments are on the horizon for Mikkeller SD?
MBB: There are a lot of super-exciting things under development, but the sour and barrel-aged beer programs are two projects we are putting a lot of effort into. We have such a creative team over there, and it seems that no matter how crazy the idea and/or recipe I throw at them, they enthusiastically turn those into great beer. We are also working on new collaborations with other breweries, and non-brewers as well.

WC: You’ve spent more time than ever in San Diego. What are some of your favorite local breweries?
MBB:
I hate to name favorite breweries as it pushes the rest to the side. In the San Diego area there are obviously a ton of amazing brewers, from the old guys like Stone Brewing, Green Flash Brewing Co. and Ballast Point Brewing, to the young guns like Abnormal Beer Co., Toolbox Brewing Co., Modern Times Beer Co. and many others. I still have a big heart for our friends at AleSmith, so if I have to name one…

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Beer Touring: Burgeon Beer Company

Dec 21

Last week, I made mention of the fact that the more recent entrants into San Diego’s brewery-scene are taking steps to really put their best feet forward when introducing themselves to the imbibing public. Count the recently soft-opened Burgeon Beer Company (6350 Yarrow Drive, Carlsbad) among that faction. Headed by a trio of longtime beer-buds—one of which is brewmaster Anthony Tallman, formerly of Stone Brewing, Rough Draft Brewing Company and, most recently, Vista’s Back Street Brewery—it took more than three years to cobble together from conception-to-reality, and it’s clear, even in its first month of operation, that none of that time was wasted.

Located on an industrial side-street just south of McClellan-Palomar Airport, Burgeon would easily blend into its industrial-park environs…were it not for large, easy-to-spot, professional signage towering above the entry. It sounds simple, but it really makes a difference. Time otherwise wasted driving around, making U-turns and cursing one’s map-app is instead spent enjoying beer. Not sampling beer, but enjoying it, because Tallman and company are making some quality product.

Three of the toughest-to-dial-in styles of Burgeon’s seven introductory beers are its best. Thuja IPA, a 6.5% single India pale ale packed with Mosaic, Citra, Amarillo and Centennial hops, has just the right consistency to convey all those hops’ flavors and aromas while remaining easy-to-drink. The cleverly named Mixed Greens Double IPA—the first in a series of rotating imperial IPAs that will see different combinations of hops added at six different stages during the brewing and fermentation process—is aptly “green”, low on the sweetness that can sometimes overtake double IPAs, and leaves a delightful, lingering accent of tangerine in its wake. Conversely, Lot 19 Pale Ale (named after the spot where a motherlode of cedar was sourced for construction of the furniture in Burgeon’s tasting room) brings a nice caramely malt-base in without imparting any sweetness, thus balancing this 5.5% ABV beer’s citrus-like hop-borne essence.

The next-best beer at Burgeon is probably, of all things, its cream ale. Tallman’s take on an American adjunct-lager (you may know it as lawnmower beer or that watery beverage four-fifths of the country thinks of exclusively as “beer”) is smooth, easy-drinking and a little higher in alcohol than Coors and Budweiser’s OG versions. And what’s that other thing in there? Oh yes…flavor. It won’t punch you in the face, but it’s a heck of a transition beer for folks who are tired of waiting until the mountains turn blue enough to hide the flavor deficiencies in their current beer of choice.

Of course, everything’s not perfect. A rye amber ale and nut brown show promise, but could use a little more heft on the palate, while Moo Moo Farm Milk Stout (right up there with Mixed Greens in the killer-moniker department) is a bit overdone with a certain smokiness that comes across as off-putting.

As with its exterior, Burgeon wins bonus points for its interior design. The tasting room is rather spacious, but nice, thoughtful, unique touches keep it from feeling the least bit empty. There is plenty of seating augmented by vertical cedar shelving stacked with bright green plant-life, a tree sprouting from the ground at the end of the bar, and a fountain feature converted from Burgeon’s founders’ original home-brew sculpture.  On top of that, the cold-box is also paneled to mimic the look of a shipping container with Burgeon’s wordmark emblazoned on one side and tree-stump signs on the other telling the tale of the tap-list.

Burgeon has more polish than a number of breweries that have been operational for years, and that’s saying something. Everybody is upping their game to compete in this rather crowded market, making it all the more impressive that the individuals behind this interest saw fit to up theirs long before opening their doors, an act that will be made official during grand-opening festivities from noon to 3 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m., Saturday, January 21.

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2016 Recap: San Diego’s Best Breweries Right Now

Dec 15

What are the best breweries in San Diego? Having reported on the San Diego brewing industry for nearly 10 years and having written a guide to San Diego breweries, I get asked this question all the time. My answers vary quite a bit. Prior to 2012, that list didn’t change all that much. Heavy hitters like Ballast Point Brewing Co., Green Flash Brewing Co. and Stone Brewing were ever-present. Those interests got big making great beer that couldn’t be matched by smaller operations. These are not the times we are living in. Not only are small breweries able to keep up, because of their size, they are able to be nimble and do a lot more than large breweries. They can venture outside the box whenever they feel like it, chase any trend they like or even create their own, while the big boys find themselves locked into brewing the same core beers and a handful of seasonals to meet sales and distribution obligations. A new beer for them is a high-risk proposition that requires months (or even years) of test-batches and refinement.

Due to all of the above, my list of the best breweries in San Diego County is much different than ever before. Only one of the four San Diego interests in the Brewers Association’s list of the 50 largest craft breweries is on there, and its one that wouldn’t have been there several years ago. But there are five on the list that are less than three years old, nine that have a single brewhouse producing their wares, and seven that distribute their beers exclusively (or almost solely) in San Diego County. The following is my current (alphabetical) list of the top 12 brewing companies in San Diego County. (And please remember, there are more than 130 operating brewhouses in the county—not making this list doesn’t make a brewery below-average by any stretch.)

AleSmith Brewing Co., Miramar: This maker of BJCP-geared Old World beers has been around so long it’s now of legal drinking age. It has grown from a single suite to a sprawling manufacturing plant with an expansive, multi-faceted tasting-room component. Through that transition, the beer has remained solid. If anything, it would be nice to see some new beers. Disclosure: I used to work at AleSmith.

Alpine Beer Co., Alpine: Break out the asterisk. This back-country operation, which was purchased by Green Flash in 2014, makes this list for the beers it produces at its original brewery in its namesake town. There’s just something magical about that brewhouse and the pros who man it; they are the folks who built Alpine’s stellar rep and are maintaining it on a local level.

Bagby Beer Co., Oceanside: It’s no surprise that Pizza Port product and GABF master Jeff Bagby was able to transfer his brewpub prowess to his own project, but not only does he keep tons of quality beer on-tap, those taps are installed in an inviting two-story, indoor-outdoor coastal spot built by he and his wife’s true passion for craft-beer and the people who enjoy it.

Benchmark Brewing Co., Grantville: Beer-flavored beer sums up this entire operation. AleSmith alum Matt Akin keeps it simple; something that’s surprisingly challenging. Don’t believe it, see if you can find someplace that can sustain as good a reputation as Benchmark does armed primarily with a pale ale, IPA, brown ale and oatmeal stout while leading with a table beer.

Fall Brewing Co., North Park: Journeyman brewer Ray Astamendi isn’t looking to make the best beer you’ve had in your entire life. He’s more interested in giving imbibers a bunch of great beers to enjoy on any given night, and he does just that care of an impressive portfolio that includes ales and lagers alike, ranging from the hoppiest end of the spectrum to the maltiest.

Karl Strauss Brewing Co., Multiple Locations: San Diego’s longest-running post-Prohibition era brewing operation has taken recent steps to modernize its beers, introducing dry, hoppy ales, drawing attention to a constantly evolving line of beers that also show great technique. Recently constructed brewpubs in LA and the OC should keep Karl’s crew on their upward trajectory.

The Lost Abbey / Port Brewing Co. / The Hop Concept, San Marcos: Whether it’s Port’s SoCal-centric family of largely hoppy beers, The Hop Concept’s (THC, get it?) exploratory line of lupulin-laced imperial IPAs or The Lost Abbey’s unique array of Belgian-inspired, floral, bready, woody, tart and/or boozy ales, quality and innovation await at Pizza Port’s triple-threat packaged-beer cousin op.

New English Brewing Co., Sorrento Valley: One would be challenged to find a brewery in San Diego with as great a degree of quality and consistency as this interest. The only thing keeping it in unjust obscurity is its devotion to less-popular English styles, but the introduction of expertly crafted IPAs has opened some eyes and helped grow a following and, in turn, brewing capacity.

Pizza Port, Multiple Locations: Perhaps no other local brewing biz more succinctly embodies San Diego’s style, brewing and otherwise. Expertise across all styles with flashes of ingenuity and inventiveness, tons of awards but none of the pomp and ego that comes with shiny medals, a laid-back surf-vibe inviting tanks and flip-flops—Pizza Port is America’s Finest on many levels.

Rip Current Brewing Co., San Marcos: The founders of this business deserve big-time credit for sticking to their guns. They could make more money focusing on their excellent hoppy beers, but are so devoted to keeping the homebrew spirit alive, they toil away on dozens of other lesser-selling styles, many of which win awards but still get ignored. It’s a shame.

Second Chance Beer Co., Carmel Mountain: During his decade-plus brewing at La Jolla’s Rock Bottom, Marty Mendiola was well-respected in the industry, but fairly unknown among San Diego beer-drinkers. Since opening his own spot in 2015, he’s finally gained the recognition from the public that he always deserved behind long-time and newly built recipes alike.

Societe Brewing Co., Kearny Mesa: I work here, so I am biased, but this list would be incomplete were Societe not on it. Fans flock here for a rotating family of IPAs as well as Belgian-style ales, dark beers and oak-aged sours that, after many years of maturation, are starting to trickle out of the barrel-room at a steady clip. Versatility and consistency are the keys to this operation’s success.

Author’s Note: This is the third post in a three-part series of pieces which previously examined San Diego’s Best New Breweries and San Diego’s Most Improved Breweries over the past year.

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Poway’s Lightning Brewery up for sale

Dec 12

logo_lightningIn 2006, when Jim Crute transitioned from a long career as a biochemist to become a brewery owner, the landscape in San Diego County was very different. For one thing, the story of a starry-eyed homebrewing enthusiast turning his back on a lucrative career to follow his fermentation passions was not an old and much-duplicated tale.

There were only around 20 operating brewhouses in San Diego County when Crute opened the doors to Lightning Brewery in the north-inland community of Poway. Most prominent among them were Stone, Karl Strauss, Ballast Point, AleSmith, and the family of Pizza Port businesses that included Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey. That last dual-personality operation also opened in 2006 as a production-brewery venture for Pizza Port. Looking at the much smaller sudscape in the county at the time, it made sense that Pizza Port, a highly successful brewpub chain with three locations would want to start producing and distributing beer in larger quantities, in both kegs and bottles. After all, that’s how the biggest brewing companies in the county were doing it. It was the only way to gain visibility, as tasting rooms were hardly the lucrative revenue-centers they are now. Few were the folks who spent weekends shuttling from one brewery to the next like so many do now.

About the only chance a brewery had of getting their logo and brand-identity to the consumer in a meaningful way and look like a legitimate business versus some fly-by-night, oh-isn’t-that-cute “microbrewery” was to get bottles out to grocery stores. That’s where most people first saw the likes of Stone, Ballast Point, AleSmith and even the young Green Flash, which at that point had just bounced back from a shaky start that nearly saw it close. So Crute opened with the notion that 10-20% of his beer would be sold out of his tasting room—which was then just a small pad in front of the cold-box right on the brewery floor—while the rest would be wholesale. So, he started bottling nearly from the start, and self-distributing before catching on with Stone Distributing several years ago.

By his own admission, his perception, method and timing were off, and, as a result, the business suffered from a financial standpoint. As today’s brewery owners will tell you, brewing companies make the best margins on their beer by selling it in their tasting rooms where they can charge more, avoid the cost of doing business with distributors and take all of the profit for themselves. Fittingly, brewery owners make a point of constructing tasting rooms that will at very least get people in the door and, in the best cases, lure drinkers from appealing bars and restaurants, not to mention their own homes, to drink their beer at the source.

Crute recalls a conversation with Ballast Point’s Jack White around 2009, wherein the founder of the brewery that eventually grew itself into a behemoth that sold for a whopping $1 billion told his Lightning contemporary that, to his amazement, the only thing making BP any money was the tasting room at its Scripps Ranch brewery. White went on to expand that space multiple times until there was nowhere left to expand. He eventually did the same with the company’s original Home Brew Mart location, while simultaneously constructing new facilities in Little Italy and Miramar that both included not tasting rooms, but full-on restaurants with attached bars.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t until 2014 that Crute, who by then was no longer with Stone Distribution, constructed a tasting room and an outdoor beer-garden. But by then, it was too late. Were he opening Lightning today, he says he would adhere to a reversed business plan where he’d look to sell 80% of his beer out of his brewery, and distribute the remainder. But in the real-life present, Crute has made the decision to sell his business. He put up a craigslist ad titled “Turnkey Brewery and Tasting Room for Sale” on December 7, and hopes to be able to hand his decade-old labor of love to someone who is looking to get into the industry, just as he did. Purchasing Lightning would be advantageous in that it is currently in operation and would be ready for someone to take over and get straight to work. The 5,500-square-foot facility has a 30-barrel brewhouse, a combined cellar capacity of 490 barrels (350-barrels’ worth of fermenters with 140-barrels’ of brite tanks), a bottling line capable of filling 12- and 22-ounce glass, and the aforementioned tasting room and beer garden.

Crute says he is also open to existing companies purchasing Lightning for use as a secondary brand, wherein the company name and, possibly its beer-brands would remain active, but under a new owner. But the bottom-line is that he says he has enjoyed pursuing his dream and feels he gave it his all for 10 years. He feels it’s important to be reasonable and turn the page, but in doing so, hopes another entrepreneur can realize their aspirations in the place where he realized a good many of his.

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Wild Barrel Brewing purchased URBN St. system

Dec 6

logo_wildbarrel_urbnAll around San Diego County, brewing-company owners were biding their time and licking their chops, ready to pounce on used brewery equipment, the leftovers of URBN Restaurant Group’s discontinued El Cajon fermentation operation, URBN St. Brewing Company. Bids were submitted and there would likely have been a flurry of action on the last day of the auction, which would have been today, but yesterday it was communicated that, due to circumstances beyond the auction-house’s control, the auction had been canceled. As it turns out, the entire system was purchased by a single-buyer—the team at work-in-progress interest, Wild Barrel Brewing Company.

Last month, former Stone Brewing employee Bill Sysak announced he was teaming with brewer Bill Sobieski to open Wild Barrel in the North County city of San Marcos. Originally, Sysak and company were on the lookout for a steam-generated brewhouse. They were finalizing three different bids when, on November 30, Sobieski brought up that URBN St.’s brewhouse was up for bid. Having visited another former Stone employee, Callaway Ryan, when he was managing brewery operations at URBN St., Sysak had observed the system in action. To be safe, he and Sobieski did some due-diligence, ultimately making the decision to put in an offer.

Sysak reached out to URBN owner Jon Mangini, who willingly received Wild Barrel’s bid proposal. After a last once-over in El Cajon, a final price was negotiated (which included payment to the auction-house) on December 5. Sysak says that, even though it’s a direct-fire system, it was too good of a deal to pass up, citing a savings of both money and time. The next order of business is to negotiate a lease for Wild Barrel’s future home. Sysak hopes to make an announcement on where the business will be located within the next week or so.

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